The grandson of a French Jewish art collector whose Amedeo Modigliani painting was allegedly confiscated by the Nazis has standing to sue for the painting in New York, based on proof of French inheritance rights, a Manhattan appeals court has ruled.
Philippe Maestracci, the grandson and sole heir to 1930s art collector Oscar Stettiner, has standing to continue with his 2014 lawsuit despite not obtaining a New York letter of administration, an Appellate Division, First Department, panel has ruled.
Maestracci has followed the “alternative procedure” set out under the state Estates, Powers, and Trusts Law 13-3.5 of filing an affidavit and supporting documents establishing his right to pursue claims on behalf of the Stettiner estate under a foreign law, the panel said.
And therefore, a 2015 decision from Manhattan Supreme Court Justice Eileen Bransten that, in part, granted dismissal of Maestracci’s lawsuit based on lack of standing, is reversed.
“Although defendants correctly state that merely asserting that one is a beneficiary of a foreign decedent does not confer standing to bring suit on behalf of the estate, this court has construed EPTL 13-3.5 to permit certain representatives of estates in foreign countries to bring suit in New York without first obtaining New York letters of administration,” the panel wrote.
It added, “Maestracci relies on precisely the forms of proof we endorsed in Schoeps [v. Andrew Lloyd Webber Art Found, 66 AD3d 137, 143-144 (1st Dept. 2009)]—namely, ‘an affidavit from an expert in the law of the foreign jurisdiction concerning inheritance rights’ and ‘the foreign jurisdiction’s equivalent of an acte de notoriete’ formally certifying the party’s right to pursue claims on behalf of the estate.”
The ruling from the panel in Maestracci v. Helly Nahmad Gallery, 650646/14, helps keep alive a fiercely contested legal fight over the rights to the painting “Seated Man with a Cane,” created by Modigliani, an Italian Jewish painter and sculptor who worked mainly in France during the early 1900s. His portraits, done in what was considered a modern style, gained greater popularity and value after his death.
According to research performed by Maestracci, the panel said, Stettiner lived in Paris until 1939 and had acquired “Seated Man with a Cane.” As the Nazis descended on Paris, Stettiner fled his home. And shortly before the Allied liberation of Paris, the occupiers allegedly took the painting and then sold it in July 1944 without Stettiner’s consent.
In 1946, after World War II’s end, Stettiner brought a proceeding in Paris for the painting, and he was awarded an emergency summons invalidating the sale and directing that the painting be returned to him, the panel wrote, again citing Maestracci’s research.
But French court records from 1947 indicate that the buyer alleged he had entrusted the painting to another man who declared that he‘d sold it in 1944 to an unknown American officer.
Stettiner died in 1948, and by the 1990s, the painting was put up for auction in New York.
In New York City in 2005, it was exhibited by defendant Helly Nahmad Gallery Inc.
Eventually, Maestracci filed suit in federal court in Manhattan in 2012. That suit was discontinued without prejudice within the same year, but in 2014, he refiled the suit in state court and named multiple defendants, including International Art Center, S.A., an art holding company that bought the painting in a 1996 Christie’s auction.
The IAC had argued that Maestracci had no standing to bring the action, because, under EPTL 13-3.5, he had not established, as a foreigner, that he was a duly appointed representative of the non-domiciliary Stettiner estate, wrote the panel, which consisted of Justices David Friedman, Rosalyn Richter, Angela Mazzarelli and Judith Gische.
Aaron Richard Golub, an attorney in Manhattan representing the defendants, said on Monday he and his clients intended to appeal the panel’s Nov. 2 ruling on standing.
“When the case is over, everything will come up for appeal, and that’s an issue that we will appeal,” he said.
He also said that “the principal issue in this case is that the painting they brought this lawsuit on, they have no evidence whatsoever that it’s the same painting as ‘Seated Man with a Cane.’”
Phillip Landrigan, of Landrigan & Aurnou in White Plains, represented the estate. He could not be reached for comment.